Throughout history, inexplicable natural phenomena have tended to instill an understandable fear in people. Accounts of the solar storm of August and September 1859 stand out for their tendency toward the whimsical and delighted.
In Vermont, “It was the most magnificent display ever witnessed in this section; the sky for about an hour more kept changing from green to red, till ten and a half o’clock, when all the brilliancy was gone, except a little green at the north.” Across the globe in Tasmania, observers agreed: “It was beyond all conception the most magnificent aurora ever seen in the colony.” According to The New York Times, “There was another display of the Aurora last night so brilliant that at about one o’clock ordinary print could be read by light.” A group in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains were divided: Some were sure it was only about midnight, while others in the party, noting the brightness in the sky, “insisted that it was daylight and began the preparation of breakfast.” Auroras were visible as far south as Panama. (These accounts are all taken from a marvelous compendium of eyewitness accounts of the storm.)
For telegraph operators in the Americas and Europe, however, the experience caused chaos. Many found that their lines were simply unusable—they could neither send nor receive messages. Others were able to operate even with their power supplies turned off, using only the current in the air from the solar storm. “The line was in most perfect order, and well-skilled operators worked incessantly from 8 o’clock last evening till 1 this morning to get over in an intelligible form four hundred words of the report per steamer Indian for the Associated Press,” said one. Some experienced physical danger. “I received a very severe electric shock, which stunned me for an instant,” reported Washington, D.C., operator Frank Royce. “An old man who was sitting facing me, and but a few feet distant, said that he saw a spark of fire jump from my forehead to the sounder.”
The technical difficulty was a novelty for the telegraph, which was itself still a relatively new technology. But the story offers an important warning for modern society. The Carrington Event, as that 1859 storm has come to be known, proved the fragility of electrical infrastructure. (The electromagnetic basis of the various phenomena was identified fairly quickly: “A connection between the northern lights and forces of electricity and magnetism is now fully established,” Scientific American reported on October 15, 1859.) Since then, that infrastructure has only become more integral. Telegraphs composed a comparatively small and relatively superfluous aspect of life, but their successors today—including the electrical grid and much of the telecommunications network—are essential to modern life. But is the modern system any more protected from catastrophic interference than the telegraph was? Can the electrical grid handle a terrorist attack, or severe weather events, or a solar storm?